LAS VEGAS — Kenny Atkinson is pacing back and forth along the sidelines between his chair at the front of Brooklyn’s bench and the half-court line. He has the demeanor of a man who knows there is much work to be done.
Most Summer League teams, even those with first-time head coaches, have delegated coaching duties to the second-in-command. Atkinson wants to build with the young core Brooklyn is hoping can drag the franchise out from the bottom of the NBA. If he’s going to ask his guys to run in the Summer League, he feels he should be down in the trenches with them.
“To me, this is a dress rehearsal. It’s like I’m taking a test,” Atkinson said during a lengthy one-on-one interview with SB Nation in the corridors of UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center. “You’ve really got to have the answer. I obviously don’t have a lot of experience being a head coach.
“This just gives me more time in a flight simulator.”
A look at the Nets’ Summer League starting lineup is eerily reminiscent of the roster that posted the NBA’s worst record last season.
Without Jeremy Lin, who missed the bulk of the season with a hamstring injury, Brooklyn’s young players finished 20-62 with their arena cheering opposing players more often than not.
Still, Brooklyn saw growth last season, especially on defense. They went from dead last in defensive efficiency prior to the All-Star break to No. 8 after it, thanks in part to installing Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as the starting forwards.
Playoff contention is still miles away for the Nets, and they know it. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov learned that the hard way when he mortgaged Brooklyn’s future — or present — for an aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett years ago.
Now, the message from the top has changed, and it’s trickled down to every level of the organization.
“I like slow progression,” Atkinson said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
The first leg of that marathon was establishing Brooklyn’s timeline, which did not include Brook Lopez. The Nets dealt their all-time leading scorer over the summer in a trade Atkinson detailed as “the hardest decision” he’s made as a head coach.
But in return, the Nets recouped the lottery pick it never had and landed D’Angelo Russell, a guard Atkinson plans to pair with Lin similarly to C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard in Portland.
“Luke [Walton]’s a helluva coach, but I thought [Russell] was just looking for a fresh start,” he told SB Nation. “So we’re like a fresh program, fresh start, and I really hope that can jumpstart him.”
For Atkinson, a Northport, N.Y. native, coaching the Nets has been a dream too good to be true. But he can’t stop to pinch himself. Atkinson’s a “go guy;” it’s how he’s risen up the ranks from an assistant coach in France to an assistant coach with both the Knicks and the Hawks before landing his dream job at home.
That’s why pacing back-and-forth along the Thomas & Mack Center sidelines, Atkinson has the demeanor of a man who knows his work is cut out for him. Because the Nets aren’t competing for the now; they’re pacing themselves for the future.
Atkinson shared some of his vision for that future in an 11-minute conversation with SB Nation at the NBA Summer League. Here is a transcript.
Why are you coaching Summer League? Terry Stotts isn’t coaching. Neither is Earl Watson. But here you are, up and down the sidelines. Why?
KENNY ATKINSON: “I think it’s three-fold: One - I think this is a young core we’re trying to build with so I thought that was important. If I’m gonna ask them to play — guys like Spencer [Dinwiddie], Rondae doesn’t have to play — if I’m gonna ask them to do it, then I feel like I should be with them. I think this is the best way I can coach them. I can be hands-on, have film sessions. To me, this is kind of like a dress rehearsal. It’s hard to do that just working guys out in the summer and just doing skill work.
So I think there’s real value [through Summer League] in helping them improve. And I just value Summer League a lot. For a staff, figuring out issues. I think it’s undervalued honestly.
“Lastly, even improving myself. Even [in their July 13 win over the Nuggets], there were 2 or 3 situations where I could have played it better. It’s like I’m taking a test. You’ve really got to have the answer. I obviously don’t have a lot of experience being a head coach. This just gives me more time in a flight simulator.
And it’s hard to get during the offseason. You get 6 months off in the offseason. So this gets me back, gets the juices flowing.”
What area do you see for improving on yourself as a head coach?
K.A.: “I think just the flow of the game, substitutions. Just feeling that a little better. Out of timeout plays. Definitely can improve there. And general communication. Film sessions and messages before the game, after the game. You’re used to being an assistant, quiet never saying a word. Now, you’re managing a staff. You’re communicating with your players. Being a little sharper there.”
Is it ever surreal? You’ve gone from assistant coaching in France to head coaching at home.
K.A.: “I’m a go guy - just keep going. So I don’t really reflect on it that much. If I did, I’d pinch myself 1,000 times over because Brooklyn, I’m from New York, family. It’s too good to be true.
And I love working with [general manager Sean Marks]. We’re married so to speak. We are. We finish each other’s sentence. We have a few disagreements here and there, but for the most part, I think we both understand the culture we’re trying to build. And that’s not always the case in this league.”
How did you and Sean develop the relationship you have right now?
K.A.: “We had a lot of people we knew in common, and then we got to know each other on a somewhat friendly basis. I think our personalities fit. Because I’m a pretty intense dude, and Sean is like the ying to my yang.
I texted him the other day and said, ‘I appreciate you listening to my vents.’ Because I vent once in awhile because I want things done a certain way. He’s just so understanding, and he’s the perfect personality type for my personality.”
None of your young players emerged as a franchise pillar or star last season. Does that make your job tougher, from a player-personnel standpoint?
K.A.: “First off, there are very few guys who shine after one or 2 seasons. Only the elite guys do. But I kind of like it this way. We’re built like — you learn from your mistakes. When you’re not a superstar, you have a chip on your shoulder because it makes them hungrier to get better.
So I kind of like the progression. I like slow progression. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Mikhail Prokhorov has told us ‘patience, patience.’ I have the same message. We’re gonna be patient with them. They made some progress, but now to make that next step is harder. I’m looking two, three, sometimes development is four years down the road. That’s when hopefully we’ll see these guys, really. You’ll be talking about ‘man, that guy’s a heckuva player.’”
You finished with the NBA’s worst record last season. What kind of progress did you see as a team internally that people on the outside may have missed?
K.A.: “I thought we improved defensively when we put Rondae in the starting lineup and we inserted Caris — obviously Bojan [Bogdanovic] was traded. So all of the sudden we go from 30th defensive team to, after the All-Star game we were eighth in defensive efficiency. So I was proud of that. It’s not like the coaches did anything, but Caris and Rondae being a part of that defensive improvement I think is very important.
And two young guys going into starting roles every night? To me, that’s progress. It’s not super stardom but it’s progress. And that’s what we’re looking for. And Isaiah [Whitehead] getting the experience he had. Jeremy goes down and he’s gotta kinda step into that role and then finding his niche off the ball when Jeremy came back. We put him in a Marcus Smart role: you’re a 2, you can play some 3 because you’re so darn big, so figuring that out.
Again, we’re evolving, we’re developing, and there’s some bumps on the road, there’s no doubt about it.”
Do you see Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson developing chemistry to potentially become franchise pillars in the future?
K.A.: “Caris didn’t play a ton of college basketball. So to be able to throw him into the starting lineup, then making the position change with Rondae at the 4, and I felt like he made real progress. So yeah, those are guys that I feel are building blocks, to me.
I know people want 30 and 10 and whatever, or 25 (points), but with their experience, it’s gonna take some time. But I’m very confident in both of them.”
How tough was it to pull the trigger on the Brook Lopez trade? What were the emotions like?
K.A.: “Very hard. Very hard. Very hard. I thought Brook bought in 100 percent. That’s hard with a guy who’s had I don’t know how many different coaches. He embraced our culture. He was a pleasure to be around every day. That was probably the hardest decision that I’ve made being a head coach. And that’s part of being a head coach. It’s not just coaching these darn games. It’s making decisions like that with Sean. And that was the hardest because he’s a heck of a player.
But again, our timeline’s a little different. There were a lot of different reasons why we did it. But that was extremely difficult.”
As a result of that trade, you get back a guy in D’Angelo Russell. He’s kind of the lottery pick you guys didn’t get this year. How does landing him jumpstart your rebuild?
K.A.: “Yeah because I do think age plays a part in this. You want a certain group that are gonna build together. I don’t think you want all your players in different age groups (while rebuilding). So it’s good that we have a young core we can build with.
And it’s a great second opportunity for D’Angelo. When i talked to him immediately after the trade, I felt like he was so enthusiastic. Luke [Walton] is a helluva coach, but I thought he was just looking for a fresh start. So we’re like a fresh program, fresh start, and I really hope that can jumpstart him.”
How do you see Jeremy and D’Angelo playing with each other seeing as though they are both so effective on the floor with the ball in their hands?
K.A.: “I think Brad Stevens said this the other day: We don’t even look at the roster like 1-2-3-4-5. We have our smalls, our perimeters that can handle the ball. Then we have our wings, then you have your shooting bigs and your rolling bigs. It’s like, I don’t anticipate any problems.
The way we play offense, it’s very conducive to both of them getting enough touches. You look at C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard — and I don’t want to compare the players — but they end up both playing a ton of point guard. They just stagger the minutes. So believe me, there’s gonna be enough minutes, enough touches for both of those guys.
I look at it for myself as like, we just got another really good player. Jeremy’s really good, he’s really good. Now it’s up to our coaching staff to figure out how we can use them best.”
Some players used the word “freedom” to describe your coaching style. What does that mean to you?
K.A.: “I think we had a film session the other day, and one of the things I showed them was us turning down open shots. I think I’m an expand-your-game type of coach. I see the good in all players. ... It’s just a mindset, a growth mindset for players. I think they can do a lot more.
Now once the season starts, when the competition starts, we’ve got to figure out who does what best. But I think right now, we’re in a growth mindset. So I think we can take a little risk in terms of letting the ball fly a little and giving them freedom to play.”